FRESH AIR

ABC misrepresents Hamas’ hostages-for-ceasefire offer, Israel’s rejection of it

Feb 8, 2024 | Ahron Shapiro

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Mistakes happen in journalism, especially during interviews conducted either live or on tight deadlines. The important thing is that corrections are issued as quickly as possible.

ABC reporting on breaking news in Israel last night (this morning, February 8, Australia time) regarding Hamas’ terms for a hostage-for-ceasefire deal proposal and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s negative response to it was so wildly inaccurate and misleading that it warrants such corrections, and soon.

At fault here is principally ABC Global Affairs Editor John Lyons, who has been based in Jerusalem, filing stories, doing live interviews and writing analysis since January 24.

 

A progression of errors

ABC “The World” (Feb. 7): In early afternoon February 7 (Jerusalem time), when initial details of Hamas’ terms were scarce, Lyons’ reporting was both inaccurate and overly generous to Hamas:

John Lyons: “[Hamas’ hostage swap terms] includes some comments on the framework, but in its entirety, it is a positive response. While those involved are not saying much, US President Joe Biden says the demands are being considered.

Joe Biden: It’s a little over the top. We’re not sure where it is. There’s a continuing negotiation right now.

John Lyons: The deal, put together by Israel, the US, Qatar and Egypt, is believed to include a six -week truce and another exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners… A demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously ruled out.

On his last point, Lyons was, of course, simply wrong. As everyone knows, in the hostage deal brokered between Israel and Hamas back in November, Israel released hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons on terror offences, including attempted murder, in exchange for the release of some 81 Israeli hostages, all women and minors.

Netanyahu had certainly not ruled out exchanging hostages for Palestinian prisoners again. What he has said now many times is that “we will not release thousands of terrorists” in exchange for the hostages. The main reason for this is precisely because Israel has already released Palestinians convicted of so-called “minor” terror offences that only led to injury, not death. What Netanyahu adamantly continues to say he won’t do is release masses of terrorists who murdered Israelis.

ABC “AM” (Feb. 8): In an interview that presenter Sabra Lane said had been pre-recorded, Lyons completely misrepresented Hamas’ demands:

John Lyons: Sabra, what Hamas wanted from this deal was that over a period of 45 days, a third of the hostages would be released, then another third after another 45 days of ceasefire, and then the final hostages would be released, or the remains of the hostages who have not survived would be released in the third phase of 45 days.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a short time ago, has made an address to the country, a prime-time address has basically ruled out any such deal, said it would be crazy and would invite another massacre.

Lyons made a gross factual error here. He makes allusions to elements of Hamas’ offer to Israel – which was indeed based on three stages. But he words it like what Hamas really “wants to do” is release hostages in increments of successive 45-day ceasefires – apparently for nothing in return – and Netanyahu won’t let it! How does this jibe with Netanyahu’s statement that it would “invite another massacre”? Lyons’ reply to Lane makes that seem like a bizarre non-sequitur.

Detailed terms of the Hamas demands for a hostage deal, which were known hours before Lyons was interviewed by Lane (indeed, well before Netanyahu’s televised response noted in Lyons’ interview), were spelled out in a Reuters story that broke around 6pm on Feb. 7 (Israel time):

I’ll quote the Reuters story at length, because it is important to understand that this summary, verbatim, is the information that would have been available to Lyons, as well as ABC AM’s producers, story editors and production team.

FIRST 45 DAYS

Temporary halt to military operations, end of aerial reconnaissance, repositioning of Israeli forces far outside populated areas in the entire Gaza Strip.

Release of Israeli civilian women and children aged 19 or under held hostage in Gaza, as well as all elderly and sick hostages.

Release of Palestinian women, children, elderly and sick from Israeli jails.

Agreement on release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, with Hamas to nominate 500 of them who have been sentenced to long or life sentences.

Increase in humanitarian aid into Gaza, including the north, and return of displaced people to their home districts. Start rebuilding hospitals, homes and other facilities. U.N. agencies to provide services and establish shelter camps for population.

SECOND 45 DAYS

Discussions to be completed before start of second phase on conditions to maintain ceasefire.

Release of all Israeli male civilian and military hostages in exchange for other Palestinian prisoners.

Continuation of humanitarian measures in Gaza.

Israeli forces to withdraw outside Gaza Strip.

Comprehensive reconstruction to begin and blockade of Gaza to end.

THIRD 45 DAYS

Exchange of bodies and remains from both sides after their identification.

Continuation of humanitarian measures in Gaza that were agreed upon in earlier phases.

With the actual details of Hamas’ offer in hand, Lyons’ comment that Netanyahu said such a deal “would be crazy and would invite another massacre” now make sense on many levels –  but principally because it amounts to a demand for a complete surrender by Israel.

Hamas’ terms would leave Hamas in power and free to rebuild its offensive military capability, supercharged by the end of a “blockade” which exists only to prevent Hamas from importing military hardware or dual-use technology such as, for example, drones and raw materials that can make explosives.

And yes, Hamas’ terms would also hand the terror group a “captain’s call” on prisoners it gets to free as part of the exchange, 500 convicted murderers that Israel could not veto. This is something no Israeli leader could likely ever agree to, especially since the painful lesson of the 2011 deal Israel agreed to in order to free Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity that released 1,027 prisoners, including October 7 attack mastermind Yahya Sinwar himself!

Compounding his mistake, Lyons erroneously implied that Hamas’ excessive demands were not what frustrated US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but Israel’s rejection of them.

John Lyons: So this is a serious blow to the efforts by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who’s here in the Middle East at the moment and who very much wanted to get a deal like this through.

Actually, Blinken said “there are some clear nonstarters in Hamas’s response.”

I could go on. The icing on the cake here was the remarkable headline given on the ABC website for the AM story “Israel rejects Hamas peace proposal”. Ironically, while Lyons has inappropriately used the term “peace initiative” to describe hostage deal negotiations, he did not call the Hamas offer a “peace proposal”. That absurd headline was likely written in Australia.

And again, while mistakes happen constantly in journalism, this one, having been pre-recorded, should never had made it to air. Lyons should have been asked by Lane or someone else overseeing AM to have another take at answering Lane’s question with factual accuracy, or someone else should have been aired who could do so.

Lyons also doubled down on putting all the blame Netanyahu for refusing to agree to Hamas’ offer (and not Hamas for making unreasonable demands, as agreed by both Biden and Blinken in their comments) on ABC “News Breakfast” (Feb. 8), telling Michael Rowland that in a prime-time address to the Israeli public, essentially closed the door on that hostage deal.”

 

Not just Lyons

Meanwhile, like Lyons, Radio National’s “Breakfast” (Feb. 8) also framed the story as Netanyahu (Headline: “Netanyahu rejects Hamas ceasefire deal, vows ‘total victory’”) rejecting a carefully crafted deal without raising the possibility that Hamas’ demands were too high.

Host Patricia Karvelas interviewed Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar, an outspoken left-wing critic of Netanyahu who did blame the Israeli PM, but also Hamas for the lack of agreement, providing informative nuance of the Israeli perspective.

Eldar understood that Hamas’ terms were not merely a ceasefire, it would end the war and that “Hamas will declare victory”.

“It’s like we are in a game that has to be ended with a knockout and not with scoring more points,” he said, adding “I would be very surprised actually if he would have accepted it.”

Karvelas pushed harder on Eldar to blame Netanyahu, asking “Is this essentially a total rejection of what the US and Qatar have spent months trying to deliver in terms of a ceasefire?”

Eldar disagreed, saying realistically negotiations would continue in different forms but that Sinwar would hold on to the hostages as long as possible as an insurance policy. “[The hostages are] Sinwar’s… last card… These are terrorists that don’t really care about what’s happening to their people.”

Eldar added, “And Netanyahu said today that Hamas is, I don’t know if they are stealing, but they are controlling the humanitarian aid and they take 60% of the food and the aid that goes into, Israel allows to go into Gaza, goes to Hamas.”

Karvelas never acknowledged the implications of what Eldar had just said or asked whether he agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment.

Update, Feb. 9: Later reports on Feb. 8 from Jaqueline Breen (for “The World Today”) and Lyons’  for “The World” included the following quote from Blinken: “While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached.”

However, none of these reports dug any deeper into the Hamas offer to possibly explain how, in Lyons’ words during a cross to The World’s host Bev’ O’Connor, Netanyahu “thought that [Hamas’ offer] was the ingredients for another sort of October 7-type massacre.”

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